Only recently have LGBT people been able to serve openly in the U.S. military. “Don’t Ask, Do Tell,” a new exhibit at the Stonewall National Museum and Archives (SNMA) in Fort Lauderdale, explores the lengths the government has gone over the past 250 years to drum out gay soldiers who bravely served their country.
“I wanted to look at the recent changes in the government policy and the relationship between the military and the LGBTQ community, especially because there have been so many changes in the last few years,” explained SNMA Executive Director Hunter O’Hanian.
In 1994, the Clinton Administration instituted “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” a compromise that effectively kept gay and lesbian service members in the closet for 17 years until former President Barack Obama and Congress ended discrimination in 2011.
Progress proved fleeting when former President Donald Trump announced his intention in a 2017 early morning tweet to remove transgender soldiers from the ranks, once again sowing fear and confusion. President Joe Biden reversed Trump’s order within months of taking office this year.
“When you look at history, there were only brief periods — a small period of the entire relationship — where [LGBT servicemembers] were embraced,” said O’Hanian. “It’s easy to see how fleeting and recent and temporal the right to serve in the military is today. Another change in the political winds could force these people out of service again.”
Studies suggest that more than 65,000 LGBT people are currently serving in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard.
O’Hanian’s research led him to accounts in 1778 of the court-martial of Continental Army General Frederick Gotthold Enslin on charges of sodomy. Due to the pandemic, he relied on documents and artifacts on hand in the archives, one of the largest LGBT collections in the world to assemble the exhibit and tell the stories of subsequent patriots.
He found a 1949 memo from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff detailing the procedures for charging soldiers believed to be homosexual. Newsletters from the Mattachine Society and other early activist organizations chronicled the era from a personal perspective. Guests can see the 1975 Time Magazine cover in which Air Force technical sergeant Leonard Matlovich came out to the nation, along with a full-page USA Today ad from the Clinton era featuring General Colin Powell and warning that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” would “destroy the military.”
“The USA Today ad was indicative of the public media fight at the time. In every national newspaper, they literally used the word ‘destroy.’ No one wanted the military destroyed, they were simply asking for inclusion,” O’Hanian said.
“Don’t Ask, Do Tell” is currently on view through Friday, July 16 at the Stonewall National Museum and Archives, 1300 E. Sunrise Blvd. in Fort Lauderdale. Attendance is limited to 75 visitors at a time and social distancing and masks are required. For more information or to view a virtual version of the exhibit, go to Stonewall-Museum.org.